Visiting Murcia for an entirely different, totally “non-touristic” reason, we ended up spending our entire Easter week there, celebrating Semana Santa 2014. We later found out that the “Holy Week” in Murcia is one for the most famous in Spain (the most famous are those in Sevilla, Málaga, Cartagena, León, Valladolid and Zamora). In fact in 2011 the Spanish Ministry of Tourism declared the Semana Santa of Murcia as being of Interés Turistico Internacional.

In early 2018 we had the chance to revisit Murcia, and revise and renew these pages.  

Murcia is the capital of the autonomous community of the Region of Murcia (even if the regional assembly actually sits in Cartagena). The city has a population in excess of 440,000 (2009), which makes it the 7th largest city in Spain. The metropolitan area around the city includes at least another 250,000 people (2010), and the entire region has a population of more than 1.4 million (still only about 3% of the Spanish population). Around 12% of the population are foreigners, but oddly enough more than a third of those are from Ecuador.  

We drove to the city entering from the direction of Lorca and it must be said we did not really get the impression that Murcia is well known for its fruit, vegetables and flowers. But in fact Murcia is called the huerta de Europa, or orchards of Europe (with rich soil and abundant water). It would appear that the semi-arid climate in the fertile plain around the city (with a little bit of water added) makes for ideal growing conditions for fruit and vegetables. In 2013 Murcia generated more than € 2.2 billion by exporting more than 1.2 million tonnes of crops to foreign markets. Major crops are apricots, artichokes, cauliflower and broccoli (66% of the total Spanish production), lettuce and chicory (72% of the total Spanish production), melons, grapes, and lemons and limes (64% of the total Spanish production). In Europe Murcia is the lead producer of lettuce, cauliflower, lemons and melons. Murcia accounts for 24% of Spain’s domestic market and 16% of its export market for fruit and vegetables. So they provide a vital contribution in keeping Spain the worlds largest producer of fruit and vegetables, in front of the Netherlands, the USA, and China, and this is worth € 36 billion annually.

We have here what most people see on their maps. We drove up the motorway, past Granada and Lorca, and into the city of Murcia. The map tells us that we had mountains on our left, and a large fertile-looking plain on our right. 

To the left we have the rugged Sierra de Espuña (with the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Espuña), and on the right the more modest Sierra de Cerrascoy. In reality we actually drove through quite a variety of landscapes, with pine forests, stunning limestone formations with deep ravines, a watershed, and a part of a major desert-like “badlands” with its almost lunar landscape. Inland we could see quite an impressive mountain range, with peaks in the Macizo de Revolcadores reaching over 1,900 m (it is not for nothing that this “massive” is also known as the Sierra Seca or “dry sierra”). What we are actually looking at is a typical example of a so-called Karst topography (named after a limestone plateau on the Slovenian-Italian boarder). The Earth’s surface is constructed of separate layers of dissolved sedimentary bedrock, such as limestone. In many cases the soil can be quite fertile, but the rainwater sinks through the crevices and sinkholes, so there are no rivers or lakes. The surface looks parched, but underground there can be a complex drainage system and extensive caves. Whilst impressive the reality is that this type of landscape is quite common in Spain, e.g. check out the Picos de Europa in the Cantabrian Mountains. Between the greenness of Sierra de Espuña and the city of Murcia you can just see the famous “badlands”, a lunar landscape made up of cultivated areas and gullies, ravines and canyons of light chalk eroded over millions of years. Just to make things even more interesting we can see examples of so-called halomorphic soil, a soil that contains a significant proportion of soluble salts. What happens is that water appears out of the ground and forms small shallow lake basins, it evaporates rapidly leaving salt on the surface. Halomorphic soils are a mix of clay and the salt, can either be saline or alkaline, and are very complex and difficult to “recover” for agriculture. 

So certainly spectacular landscapes, but the area actually suffers from high temperatures (see the left map) and low rainfall (the right map), resulting in a major risk of continued desertification (see the large map below with the red indicating a major risk). 

As we approach the city we must remember that like many parts of Spain, the region is rich in both Roman and Moorish history (see history of Murcia, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).


The region (Cueva Negra del Estrecho del Rio Quipar) has been occupied by “man” for some considerable time, possibly 900,000 years. Homo heidelbergensis teeth, Acheulian handaxes, Levallois disc cores and flakes, and Mousteroid retouched tools have been found. We also know the area was occupied by Neanderthals some 50,000 years ago (possibly 100,000 years ago, but still to be confirmed). Skeletal remains and flake tools have been found in a karst pit in the region around Sima de las Palomas, and it has even been suggested that the pit was a funeral site. The earliest sign of settlement in the region of the city of Murcia dates from around 3000 BC (end of the Neolithic period), probably in a place called La Alberca due to it being easy to defend and safe from floodwater. It is said that the area was permanently inhabited during both the so-called Argaric period, and with the Iberians from around 525 BC to the arrival of the Romans in 209 BC.

The hill of Monte Arabí in Yecla is the site of several rock art ensembles discovered in 1912, the most outstanding of which are in Cantos de Visera, the Mediodía cave and the Los Muertos gorge, and El Arabilejo. The paintings are varied and include human figures, animals, geometric designs and several small idols.

The Romans

The Murcia region, and in particular Cartagena, was deeply affected by the Punic Wars. It is enough to say that the Romans exploited the silver and lead mines in the region, the marble quarries, the salt pans, and the rich agricultural lands to feed all their slaves. One such farm called Murtia grew to exploit the myrtle bushes growing the region. Some believe this is the origin of the name Murcia. The Romans drained the marshes, improved the roads, built dams, dikes and irrigation ditches. But judging from the few remains found, the region remained sparsely populated.

In 425 AD the Vandals occupied the region, and in 426 AD the Visigoths arrived. Later still Emperor Justinian took the region, and made Cartagena the capital of the province of Spania. In 612 the Visigoths re-took the region and remained in control until the arrival of the Moors in 713.

The Murcia Archaeological Museum houses an extensive collection of artefacts taken from more than 2,000 sites in the region. 

Cartagena has its own archaeological museum, a Roman Theatre Museum, and the Spanish National Museum of Underwater Archaeology.

The Moors

In 713 Theudimer, the Visigoth overlord of Murcia, surrendered and signed a pact with the Muslim emir Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa (who was the first governor of Al-Andalus). This treaty mentioned places such as Lorca, Alicante and Eiche, but not Murcia, reflecting the fact that the town was still unimportant at that time.

Tradition has it that the town of Murcia was built after a feud broke out over a bunch of grapes. It is said that the area was inhabited by two rival tribes, the Yemenies and the Midaries, and one day a Yemeni ate some grapes belonging to a Midare. In the fight the Yemeni was killed, so naturally his tribe raided their rivals. In order to stop the fighting, the emir decided on the 25 July 825 to permanently leave his troops and establish his new capital in the region. The initial fortifications were built on the former Roman villa called Murtia, and Medina Mursiya was born. 

Over time Murcia gained ascendency over Lorca, and in 929 Abd al-Rahman III was even proclaimed Caliph of Córdoba. After the disappearance of the Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031, the kingdom of Murcia eventually managed to also incorporate the provinces of Albacete and part of Almería.

The end of the Moorish Murcia came in 1228 when Alfonso VIII of Castile entered the city and proclaimed himself emir, and in 1243 the territory of Murcia submitted to the protection of King Fernando III of Castile, and it was his son who became known as Alfonso X, El Sabio (the wise).

In Murcia, on the week following Semana Santa, there is a fiesta called Moros y Cristianos. Different comparsas represent the Christian and Moor legions and they parade around the city for at least 3 days over the weekend. This tradition, started in 1981, includes several groups representing the Moors (e.g. Ibn Arabí, Mudéjares, Almorávides, ...) and Christians (e.g. Templarios, Orden de Santiago, San Juan de Jerusalén).

The Middle Ages

In 1264 there was a Mudéjar uprising in which the city of Murcia was taken over by militant Moors. Two years later the revolt was crushed, e.g. the “Reconquista” but mass expulsions left the countryside de-populated. And noble knights and new Christian immigrants took control of vast tracts of land in the region.

The city hosted Christians in the central parishes, Muslims around the Arrixaca, and Jews near the Puertas de Orihuela. Alfonso used Murcia as one of the three cities in which he held court, along with Sevilla and Toledo. Mosques disappeared to be replaced by churches. In the latter part of the 13th C Murcia went through a difficult period after the death of Alfonso X. Upon his death he left his heart to Murcia, in thanks for it’s loyalty (it is housed in the Cathedral). In 1296 Murcia was captured for the crown of Aragón, but it was returned to Castile in 1304. For a period the city was “under the protection” of the nephew of Alfonso X, but it was sitting between the lands of Aragón and Castile, was uncomfortably close to Granada, and with its coastline could be easily raided by the Berbers. 

Things did not get better. There was in-fighting between the rich families in the city, epidemics tore through the city, and famine reduced the population even further. 

Alfonso X was also known as Alfonso the Learned or Wise. In order to give everyone access to great intellectual works he insisted that everything be written in Castilian rather than Latin. It is well known that he was involved in the selection and funding of works to be produced and translated. He selected the authors, oversaw the production, and even occasionally added his personal contribution. 

The 16-18th Centuries

With Carlos I, also known as Charles V, the Murcia region started to grow again, largely due to the silk industry based in the irrigated lands around the city. The mulberry tree and the silkworm became staples of the Murcian economy. But as with many agricultural economies crop failures could rapidly transform themselves into social unrest, e.g. as with the Revolt of the Comuneros in 1519. The countryside consisted of small communities of both Christians and Moors living side-by-side. So when the Moors were finally driven out of Spain (expulsions started in Murcia in 1613) their possessions passed to the crown, and the area de-populated again. Plague hit Murcia in 1648, droughts and flooding were frequent, e.g. a flooding in 1651 killed more than 1,000 people and destroyed most of the mulberry trees in the region.

With time the region recovered and continued to trade in silk. As the cities grew there was a greater demand for both food and manufactured goods. The Huerta became increasingly important in providing food for the growing population, and the church and land owners (nobility) grew richer.

At this point in time we see appear the three “great” figures of Murcian history. Cardinal Belluga, the sculptor Francisco Salzillo, and the politician Floridablanca (you can still see their names on roads and buildings throughout the city). Don Luis Belluga y Moncada, a priest and military leader, defended Murcia against the Austrian army in the battle of Huerto de las Bombas in 1706. He ordered the sluice gates to be opened rendering the Austrial cavalry useless. José Moñino y Redondo, Count Floridablanca, was the Spanish Secretary of State between 1777 and 1792, and he was able to ensure that investments in new factories and irrigation works was made in the Murcia region.  

Francisco Salzillo y Alcaraz (1707-1783) was one of the greatest Baroque sculptors. He focused exclusively on religious themes, almost always in polychromed wood. He founded a Murcian School of Sculpture and in Murcia he has his own museum. Every church in the city holds at least one of his works.

Above we have a work called “El Angel de la Oración”. And below we have a composition called “Oración en el Huerto de los Olivos”. Taken from the museum it is used for the paso procesional de viernes santo.  

Towards Modern Murcia

In the late 18th C epidemics, floods and droughts meant famine struck again. The war of independence (1807-1814) against Napoleon did not help things. The city was sacked in 1810 and again in 1812. The peasants of the Huerta, in opposition to the rich landowners, tended to be liberal rather than absolutists. Spain was in chaos and in a major reform landed estates were abolished. In 1833 Murcia became the capital of the Region of Murcia (including Albacete). 

In 1879 Murcia was again flooded and more than 1,000 people lost their lives (finally reservoirs were built in the mountains to reduce the risk of future flooding). The old city walls were removed in 1879, gas lighting arrived in 1867 and electricity arrived in 1893. The university was founded in 1915. Agriculture has always been at the heart of the region, and increasingly it has seen the arrival of the food industry. 

Murcia participated in La Gloriosa revolution (1868-73) and the Canton of Murcia was inaugurated in 1873, but the Borbón monarchy was restored in 1874. The city remained, at least its middle and upper classes, conservative even through the Second Republic of 1931. With the arrival of the Franco dictatorship the region suffered. Lack of agricultural machines and a poor interventionist policy of the state combined to produce shortages and rationing.

It was only in the 1960’s and 1970’s that agriculture in the region again became profitable. The Region of Murcia became autonomous in 1982, with Murcia as it capital. Since then the region has continued to grow, with the detached house on a small plot in the Huerta being the most significant form of development. 

Murcia - Today, Tomorrow, ...

Some years ago Murcia saw itself as the new Florida, or even the new California. Apartments and golf courses were being built everywhere, and money was available for any type of new development. A 100 km toll road was built along the coast between Cartegena and Vera just to service the future resorts. Marina’s and parks were planned and even some were built, but the crown on the head of Murcia was to have been Corvera, a completely new airport to welcome all the new tourists. The construction contract was awarded in 2006, but nothing went to plan. By 2008 the bank would not finance the building, so the regional government stepped in with a €200 million guarantee. In 2012 the region had to request a €527 million bail-out from the Regional Liquidity Fund. Logically they should have stopped the construction, but no, they went on. It is built, ready, but in 2014 the airport still needed its fittings and authorisations. 

At the same time they have invested €70 million in improvements to the existing San Javier airport just 35 km away (between 2004-2011 they also built there a new terminal, runway and control tower). The Corvera airport has cost €266 million to date (2014). However passenger traffic in the Murcia Region has dropped from 2 million people per year in 2007 to 1.2 million in 2012, and one publication noted that this drop in frequentation was in fact closer to 75% with more and more people arriving at Alicante. During our visit in 2014 there was much discussion in the press about only opening the new airport when the older San Javier airport closed. There was also much discussion about taking back the operators concession and opening the airport as a public service. However the latest information (2014) was that the consortium that built and planned to operate the airport had avoided bankruptcy and would open the airport under a renegotiated concession. But it was also reported that the airport still did not have all the necessary permits. At Easter 2014 people spoke of an opening planned for November 2014, or perhaps sometime in 2015!

Upon our return to Murcia in 2018 the situation is that the new airport Corvera should open in 2019, and as far as I can tell San Javier should close. In 2017, despite the fact that the airport was not yet open, it was decided at the Regional Assembly of Murcia to rename the airport as the International Airport of the Region of Murcia-Juan de la Cierva Codorníu, in homage to the inventor of the autogyro. In early 2018 a new company was formed with Aena to run the new airport, however they still have to complete the passenger equipment and facilities and start the certification process with the Spanish aviation authorities. 

Controversy remains. Many claim that San Javier airport is profitable in its category, whereas Covera will require a public subsidy of about € 3 million per year.  On top of that, many tour operators using San Javier say they will move to Alicante rather than Covera (and an additional investment is planned on road and rail infrastructure to improved access to Alicante airport and between the airport and Murcia). Finally, no one appears to know what to do with the 450 people working in San Javier.  

Is the situation with the Covera airport an extreme case of incompetence and waste? Who knows, but let us now look at the planned Paramount Theme Park. In 2010 it was decide that a Paramount Theme Park should be built in the region, and a pre-license was issued. A location of 3 million square meters in Alhama de Murcia was found in late 2011 (what luck, it was near the new Corvera airport). In 2013 basic land clearance started and contracts were agreed for parking and access roads. Actual construction was planned for mid-2014. However, back now in Murcia in 2018 we found that the project had been ruled illegal because it encroached on regional parkland. In fact the work had never really started because no one was ready to invest. And now all the land will revert to non-development land available only for agriculture. 

More generally, in 2014, some people thought that the region was totally out of control. It had 26% unemployment, a massive local debt, overspending of anything up to €10 billion annually, about €3 billion in uncollected tax receipts annually, and anything up to 35%-40% of its economy was operating in the “black”, or undeclared, or “underground”. You name it - no invoicing, VAT excluded, unaccounted overtime, clandestine raw materials, undeclared building, undeclared rents, undeclared cash sales with refusal to take credit cards, etc. And don’t forget that 90% of people employed in the Murcia region worked in small companies or were freelancers.

But even in 2014 not all was negative. Until 2007-2008 economic crisis Murcia was one of the most stable economies in Spain, with annual growth a full 0.5% above the national average. On top of that the region had been able to translate that growth in to new jobs. Whilst Murcia is known for its agriculture it only accounts for about 5% of the regions GVA (gross value added) and 11% of total employment. Manufacturing represented 18% of GVA, and energy 4.5% GVA. Manufacturing was hit during the crisis, however due to productivity gains manufacturing in Murcia had actually increased its contribution to the Spanish national industrial sector from 2% in 2000 to 2.3% in 2009. The energy sector was still expected to grow in the coming years. In 2014 Murcia was still number one in Spain for the creation of new businesses, a full 14% above the national average. This meant that more than 11% of all new companies in Spain were created in the Murcia region. The industry sector in Murcia increased its exports outside Spain by nearly 40% between 2000 and 2009. I noticed that the region has “representations” in many Spanish speaking countries such as Columbia, Perú and Chile, but also in Russia, China, Qatar, and in Miami in the USA. In 2014 two sectors considered to have a strong future potential were the food and drinks industry and the biotechnology sector, and there were plans to invest €80 million during the period 2014-2020 to attract new companies to the region. Other sectors attracting investment during this same period included, clean energy and energy efficient buildings, intelligent and sustainable transport, and the efficient use of natural resources such as water.  

In the region the construction sector represented around 11% of GVA before the crisis, and was growing faster than the national average. In 2014 construction was virtually at a standstill in the region.

In 2014 the service sector represented nearly 70% GVA and employed around 65% of the working population, and before the crisis this was also growing faster that the national average.

In 2017 things are changing …

By the beginning of 2017 unemployment in the region has dropped from 29.9% in early 2013 to 19.3%, and by the end of 2017 it had dropped to 17.2%. The last time the region had this unemployment rate was in late 2008, during the early days of the past crisis. The problem is that most of the jobs created are in low-income sectors. On the other hand the regional economy grew by 3.4% in 2017. Signs are positive. International tourism is on the increase (up by 7.6% as compared to 2016), demand for residential properties is ‘on the increase’ (with building licences up by 14%), sale of regional wines rose 13.8%, new vehicle sales rose by 8.8%, etc.

In 2017 regional GDP in Mercia grew by 3.7%, and it had the highest growth in all of Spain. In fact regional GDP has been rising again since 2012, and was around €28.5 billion in 2016, but on the down side GDP per capita for the region is still well below the Spanish national average, and the purchasing power (21,000) of people living the region is well below both the national and EU28 averages (25,900 and 28,900 respectively). In addition little has been done to reduce regional debt (still €9.2 billion), which now stands at 25.9% of the regions GDP (the Catalunya region has by far the largest dept in Spain). The region has a ‘BBB-‘ rating, which is higher than the region’s intrinsic credit profile, largely because 80% of the regions debt is held by the central government. The region is repaying some debt, but is still over-spending as compared to an agreed 0.7% fiscal deficit (largely driven by the structural deficit of the Murcia Health Service which overspends by about €400 million annually).  

In agriculture stricter regulations on water quality and usage have been introduced, as has laws concerning the regeneration of the local marine environment. Specific requirements include the planting of hedgerows to prevent run off of soil and fertilisers, a ban on fertiliser use in fields nears lakes, etc., all on top of the decision to prohibit the use of the traditional irrigation ditches or ‘acequias’. In addition 5% of agricultural land must be converted to ‘green filters’ to eliminate the level of nitrates in the water. All this has resulted in a shift of production away from costal regions and towards higher land nearer water resources. However the winter climate in these inland regions can affect yields and production quotas, thus impacting on prices in the shops. Possibly related to this there is a major shift from fresh produce to frozen produce, with the four largest refrigeration units in Europe being built in the region, the first is already able to freeze 800,000 tons of produce per year. In addition the region is also looking for new, higher-value produce such as Orri mandarin which fetches the highest prices in the shops. Other initiatives include reforestation and an active promotion of its local wines.

No matter how you look at it the region is likely to suffer from water restrictions for the foreseeable future. Despite the increased use of desalinated water and drastic measures of water conservation, Murcia and the Segura basin is facing one of the most serious droughts in recent history. And all this despite 2017 having been the second wettest winter on record. The problem appears to be that the region has become warmer all year round, with frost in low-lying areas now almost unknown. This has favoured agriculture in the flood plain of the Segura valley, with the region producing between 20% and 30% of Spains fruit and vegetable exports. Another problem is that rain in the region has increasingly come in the form of highly localised, heavy torrential storms, meaning that much of the rainfall does not get absorbed into the subsoil. Erratic rainfall is the last thing farmers want. The development of tourism along costal regions has increased ‘urban’ water consumption, even if agriculture still represents 84% of the regions annual water consumption. For those people who might point to local golf courses as a major problem, it should be noted that they represent an annual consumption of 11 hm3 out of a total regional consumption of 1,843 hm(0.6%). 

A final word

If success was based upon the simple friendliness of the people in the region, then I would have no fears for them in the future. But unfortunately they will need much more than that, so who knows what the future will bring. What is certain is that despite all the economic difficulties and unemployment their willingness to enjoy their local festivals has no bounds.

Check out my pages on the Semana Santa 2014, and the different fiestas that followed.  © Bernard Smith 2017-18